Latino students in Utah apply grit, determination to graduate (part one of two)

Almost booted out of school, James stays determined about finishing while Abby works to overcome obstacles.
This is an archived article that was published on in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Editor's note: Politicians call it the achievement gap. Educators and families call it heartbreaking.

Only 69 percent of Latino students graduate from Utah high schools compared with 91 percent of white students.

Many challenges keep young Latinos from graduating: language barriers, economic pressures, lack of role models and stereotyping in schools, to name a few. Experts say finding solutions is critical to students' futures and the state's well-being.

High school graduates pay an average of $139,100 more in taxes over their lifetimes than nongraduates and save the country about $40,500 in public health care costs. By 2050, about 20 percent of Utahns likely will be Latino, according to Utah economist Pamela Perlich.

If low Latino graduation rates persist, the financial toll on Utah will be dire and the human toll incalculable. The Tribune spent nine months following students Abby Gonzalez and James Hernandez to see the stories behind the statistics.

He was moody. He gave one-word answers.

James Hernandez didn't like to read or ask for help.

But Suzie Broughton saw something in then 11-year-old James, a boy who was small for his age but strong willed. She saw beyond the diamond-stud earring, the baggy pants and his sometimes indifferent attitude.

The two clashed at Escalante Elementary School in Salt Lake City. Broughton often separated him from other students so he could focus. At the time, James thought she was mean.

Looking back now, James can't believe she stuck by him. He's amazed she continued throughout his high school years to mentor him, to prepare him for college, to make sure his counselors put him in the right classes, to attend his basketball games -- a sport he eventually gave up to focus on his worsening grades.

"I was a real bad kid," James said. "I put that lady through a lot of stuff."

Broughton stuck with him because she saw his potential. She saw the way other kids gravitated toward him and listened when he spoke. She saw his persistence and believed in his desire to succeed. She thought he needed just a little push from someone who knew her way around the school system.

"He is totally capable of finishing high school," Broughton said. "And I know he can get through college if he can believe in himself and get his focus back in the game."

A second language » When Abby Gonzalez moved here in fourth-grade, the only English she knew was her ABCs. When her teacher spoke, she understood only a few words.

But even as a 9-year-old, Abby wanted to make her parents proud.

The small, quiet girl stayed after class to make sure she understood the homework. At home, assignments meant to take a half hour sometimes took her four or five. Her mother helped her look through Spanish-English dictionaries after school.

By seventh-grade, Abby had pulled ahead of many of her Spanish-speaking peers.

"She knew a lot more and was really thinking about things I said in class," said Lois Bailey, Abby's seventh-grade teacher at Clayton Middle School. "She understood more than she was letting on."

Bailey decided it was time to pull Abby out of the class for students who spoke English as a second language (ESL) and put her in with regular students, children whose parents were doctors, lawyers and professors.

Abby's father worked in construction and her mother cleaned houses. Neither spoke fluent English nor had finished high school. But they were strict. No sleepovers. No boyfriends. Lots of family time.

Bailey told Abby she could always come back to her class if the regular ones proved too much. Bailey only sent about two or three ESL kids to mainstream classes each year. But not all of them made it.

Rough senior year » James respected Broughton and believed her when she said he could graduate from high school and go to college.

The now-tall 17-year-old with a deep, steady voice intended to make her proud, along with others who had believed in him.

He wanted to graduate from high school for his parents, who worked hard to provide for him and his three siblings. His mother, Jeanie Hernandez, a Salt Lake City native, worked full-time at a factory. His father, Leonicio Hernandez, often worked six days a week, 12 hours a day detailing cars.

Leonicio moved out of the house when James was 13 but drove James to school. He and James didn't talk much about school, but still, he wanted to see his son graduate. He knew how hard it could be to go through life without an education. He quit school as a sixth-grader in Mexico to help provide for his nine siblings after his own father died.

"If you don't have a diploma, you can only get jobs like I do," Leonicio said. "I don't want to see my kids working as dishwashers or working in landscaping."

Above all, James wanted to graduate for himself.

"It's basically everything I've worked for," he said in October while attending West High, his home school.

But by December, old habits set in. James often felt apathetic. He still didn't like to read and had trouble paying attention in math. He would do anything for teachers who he believed cared about him and anything to avoid those who he felt didn't. James and his friends often ditched class.

He sometimes had trouble seeing his future; it was easier to think only about today.

"I don't want to set all these goals," James said. "I just like to take one day at a time."

Before winter break, a West High administrator told James he had missed too many classes. It was time to try a different school, maybe an alternative one, such as Horizonte where James could get more attention. But James wanted to graduate with his childhood friends. He signed a contract promising no unexcused absences for a semester and no more than two tardies in exchange for being allowed to remain at West. He saw it as a challenge.

"He made it sound like I couldn't do it," he said, showing the same type of fire Broughton saw in him in sixth grade. "That kind of made me mad, so I came back to show I could do it. I knew I could do it."

James left for winter break with the one-page contract in hand and a renewed sense of determination.

Sheer determination » Abby never returned to ESL classes. Earning grades that ranged from A to F, she sometimes struggled in school. Tests were especially difficult. She was fluent in English by high school, but she continued to think in both languages.

When she took the ACT, she had to translate the English questions into Spanish in her head and then translate the answers back to English for the test. She scored a 15 out of 36. But the now 18-year-old, quiet and quick to smile, tried her best at East High School. She translated for Spanish-speaking students, did her homework and went to class. She went to church on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays where, as a Jehovah's Witness, she learned about the importance of spreading God's word partly by setting a good example.

She worked 20 to 30 hours a week after school as a nanny, a job she enjoyed and appreciated. She used her earnings to buy herself a used car, save for college and occasionally help her parents pay bills when her father's construction jobs started drying up.

Still, she made school a priority. As a junior, Abby went to the city library on weekends to type her school papers on the public computers, which had a time limit. When her time was up, she would leave the computer and wait until the next person's time was over or find a different computer so she could resume her homework.

Eventually, she decided to buy a word processor for her family's home computer with money she earned at work. It never occurred to Abby to ask her parents to buy the program for her.

"I know it's hard for them," Abby said. "If I know they don't have enough money, I shouldn't be asking for stuff."

But she wanted to succeed. She wanted to graduate. And she wanted to go to college. She wanted to become a teacher like Bailey, her seventh-grader teacher whom she still turned to for advice even in high school.

"I think of my family. I'll be the first to graduate from high school," Abby said, trying not to sound too proud.

But Abby knew she would have to essentially go it alone, hoping for help from teachers and counselors along the way.

Her parents wanted to see her graduate but didn't know exactly how to guide her to a diploma. They didn't know what classes she needed to take, what forms to fill out or how to help her with her homework.

"It's my oldest daughter," Abby's mother, Abigail Gonzalez, said in Spanish. She had also once dreamed of becoming a teacher, but her own education in Mexico didn't go beyond middle school. "I don't know what to do."